Nearly a half century later, the story of the Vietnam War evokes strong reactions and triggers painful memories for those connected to it.
Such is the case as PBS is airing an epic 10-night documentary on the conflict. “The Vietnam War,” an 18-hour series began on Sept 17. The fifth episode aired Thursday night. The final five chapters will air Sunday-Thursday of this week.
People in Columbus and those with connections to the Army and Fort Benning are watching the work of film-makers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick closely. One of those is journalist and author Joe Galloway.
Galloway was in Vietnam a half century ago, as a war correspondent for United Press International. Along with Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, Galloway wrote “We Were Soldiers Once… And Young,” which was made into a Mel Gibson motion picture about the Vietnam battle in the Ia Drang Valley.
The documentary is magnificent story and history telling, said Galloway, known as the soldier’s reporter for his work in that war.
“I can’t argue with a single thing that I have seen or heard in the first four episodes,” Galloway said on Thursday. “I was interviewed myself for 11 hours in two separate sessions in New York City six years ago.”
Galloway has been a consultant on the documentary for five years and previewed parts of it about two years ago. Still, Galloway has not seen the project in its entirety and is watching it just like everyone else.
“I am not going to judge the whole thing, because I haven’t seen the whole thing,” Galloway said. “I saw the roughs at Ken’s house a couple of years back and I thought it was terrific even without all of the color correction, the music and everything. I can’t speak highly enough for the effort that Lynn Novick and Ken Burns put into this thing.”
Carmen Cavezza, a career soldier who rose to the rank of three-star general and is now retired in Columbus, has been watching the Burns’ documentary with great interest.
Cavezza was a young captain with the 82nd Airborne, 173rd Airborne Brigade when he went into Vietnam in the mid-1960s. He was seriously wounded in a battle with the Viet Cong in 1966. He was deployed to Vietnam again in 1970 as a major in the 25th Infantry Division.
“I think it’s well done and I am enjoying watching it because it’s a different perspective than what I had,” Cavezza said.
Cavezza points to the Tet Offensive, one of the war’s largest offensives launched by the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of Vietnam against the South Vietnamese army and U.S. Forces in early 1968.
“For example, the Tet Offensive has always been portrayed as a victory for the Viet Cong,” Cavezza said. “In my mind it was always a victory for the U.S. Forces. Now, it may have been a political loss, but the documentary put it in a way that it could be understood. It was disastrous for the Viet Cong.”
Not everyone can stomach watching the series in its original form on PBS. One of those is journalist and author Karen Spears Zacharias, who lives in Oregon, but graduated from Columbus High School. Her first book, “After the Flag Has Been Folded,” was a memoir about her family and father, Staff Sgt. David Spears, who was killed in Vietnam on July 24, 1966.
The story of Vietnam is incredibly personal to Zacharias, who is currently on a book tour for “Christian Bend,” the third book in the Appalachian series that includes “Mother of Rain” and “Burdy.” She s going to wait until she can settle down and binge watch it.
“I am going to watch it that way so that I can process it and have solitude,” Zacharias said. “My children are watching it. My daughter has watched it every night. And she called me yesterday and she said, ‘You can’t watch it right now.’ She told me, ‘Don’t watch it now, Mom. I am crying every night and it wasn’t my dad, it was my grandpa.’”
Zacharias is part of a group called “Sons and Daughters in Touch,” all children of soldiers who died in Vietnam. They have a Facebook page, on which she has been monitoring the comments as the series has progressed.
“So in a way I am watching it because I am watching their reactions to it,” she said.
John Partin, a retired Columbus attorney, who worked in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps from 1969 to 1973, is also watching the series with a keen eye.
“I did not know a lot of the background, the history of Vietnam back to 1858,” Partin said. “I have found that interesting. I did not know that we (the U.S.) supported the French.”
Partin went to Vietnam once, and it was not to fight. He was the assistant prosecutor in the court-martial of William Calley, an Infantry officer accused of killing 22 South Vietnamese civilians in what was called the “My Lai Massacre.” He was there to take the depositions of two Vietnamese interpreters who worked with the U.S. soldiers.
Partin is curious how Burns will deal with the My Lai chapter.
Calley is an intensely local chapter of the Vietnam story because the military trial was held at Fort Benning. Calley was found guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced to life imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth. He spent more than three years under house arrest at Fort Benning while the verdict was appealed to U.S. District Court. Federal Judge J. Robert Elliott commuted Calley’s sentence to time served.
“I am not sure how it is going to be handled,” Partin said. “... So far, it has showed the valiant U.S. soldiers and how they did things right,” Partin said. “It will be interesting to see how he handles the Calley episode.”
In a 2009 speech to the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus, Calley talked publicly for the first time about My Lai.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Calley said, according to a report by veteran Columbus television journalist Dick McMichael. “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
Cavezza is not sure that Burns will, or should, address My Lai in the 18-hour documentary.
“I suspect he won’t,” Cavezza said. “That was one very unfortunate incident of the war. I think it is more important to the people around here because it was local and Calley lived here for so many years.”
Galloway believes that My Lai should be a part of the documentary.
“You can’t ignore that because it was a big part of the war and the changing of American attitudes,” Galloway said. “He’s got to deal with it and I am sure he does.”
Jeff Mellinger is a retired Army command sergeant major who served from April 1972 to December 2011. After 39 years, Mellinger was the last enlisted draftee on continuous active duty to retire.
Though Mellinger never served in Vietnam, he is watching the documentary closely as a career military man who dealt with the aftermath of Vietnam. It has been presented fairly and objectively, he said.
“I am just another guy with many views, opinions and thoughts on that war,” Mellinger said. “... So far, it has been an excellent effort. I’ll reserve my judgment to the end.”
The film has helped trigger Mellinger’s memory.
“It has refreshed my memory, revealed new information, and given me many things to think about,” he said. “I see people picking sides again, and that bothers me a bit.”
Zacharias met the documentary makers, Burns and Novick, on Memorial Day at the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., where they were keynote speakers. She said Burns’ job in telling this story is a massive undertaking despite devoting years to it, doing hundreds of interviews and having thousands of hours of tape.
“When they criticize journalists and say, ‘You didn’t get that story right,’ what they don’t know is I can only write as much truth as I know,” Zacharias said. “And if you hold back the truth from me, I can’t write what I don’t know. ... He is still only going to have a certain amount of truth with all of that.”
Galloway takes exception when he hears veterans proclaim they won’t watch the series because of Burns’ liberal political leanings.
“It turns my stomach,” Galloway said. “You need to see it before you judge it. There were people musing on it before the first episode broadcast and they had not seen any of it. ... To those who criticize this before seeing it, all I can say is watch it, absorb it and when it’s over, if you have criticisms, voice them.”
Today’s political divide is one of the reasons people should watch “The Vietnam War,” Galloway said.
“There is so much bitter division and the country is split worse today than it was during the war itself,” Galloway said. “... It’s the truth. I see it every day.”
Most of the Vietnam veterans whom Galloway remains in contact with are also watching the documentary.
“I am hearing from them, ‘So far, so good,’” he said. “They love what they are seeing.”
There is a lesson in the Vietnam story that is pertinent today, Galloway said.
“One of the faults of our country and our leadership is we don’t study the history and the culture of the people we go to war against,” Galloway said. “It happened in Vietnam. It happened again in Afghanistan. It happened again in Iraq. It’s a continuing fault of our leadership to be uneducated in the makeup of the people we are going to fight. You have to know the history of your enemy. If you don’t, you are fighting blind.”
Where to watch
- Episode 6 airs on PBS at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24
- You can stream all previous episodes at any time from http://www.pbs.org/show/vietnam-war/